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The story behind why Prince changed his name to a symbol

Prince, the legendary artist, died at his suburban Minneapolis home at age 57. (Video: McKenna Ewen/The Washington Post)

This isn’t the first time we lost Prince. When the artist came out with his 1993 album “Come,” the ominous black-and-white cover art showed the singer standing in front of the gates of the Sagrada Familia church in Barcelona with a tombstone-like demarcation: Prince, 1958-1993.

Prince was dead and gone, the artist seemed to be telling his fans. And in his place, a new person was born who would be called … well, what exactly? The symbol looked like a hybrid of the male and female gender symbols, but it was unpronounceable. It also happened to have been the name of Prince’s 1992 album, which was unofficially designated the “love symbol album.”

‘The world lost a creative icon’: Prince, legendary musician, dies at 57

In retrospect, the move doesn’t seem like such a strange thing for the roller-skating, party-throwing, Jehovah’s Witnessing Purple One. Especially now that Prince has become the kind of untouchable performer who can do no wrong; every recent appearance was met with a standing ovation. He was just a singular performer coming up with a unique moniker.

But at the time, the name switch was met with plenty of eye rolls — for various reasons. Music journalists threw up their hands and decided on the impossibly cumbersome The Artist Formerly Known As Prince. No acronym or anything.

In a 1999 interview with Larry King, the singer explained his reasoning: “I wanted to move to a new plateau in my life and one of the ways in which I did that was to change my name, to sort of divorce me from the past.”

But there was more to the story than that. By 1993, Prince had become frustrated with his record label, Warner Bros. Just a year earlier, the singer had broadcast via press release that his contract with Warner was one of the most lucrative of all time. But the honeymoon didn’t last long. Speculation still abounds, but the tensions arose from some combination of: Warner not wanting to release Prince’s album “The Gold Experience,” because it didn’t want to flood the market; Prince feeling like he wasn’t getting enough support from the label; Warner ending its distribution deal with Prince’s Paisley Park Records.

Obituary: Prince, mysterious, inventive pop-music chameleon, dies at 57

Whatever the case, Prince appeared to want out of his contract. He changed his name, which seemed like a nifty way of finding a loophole, and he started performing with the word “slave” written on his cheek. The feud was public, even if it was unpronounceable. But the contract remained.

Despite the new symbol, Prince wasn’t ready to abandon his original name. That much was clear when singer Bob Wiseman tried to claim the name for himself — hey, Prince wasn’t using it, right? — and he was met with a letter from musician’s lawyer. Then, once Prince’s contract with Warner was up in 2000, he reverted back to his given name. And that was the first time Prince was resurrected.